3T has announced it’s bringing frame manufacturing back home to Italy, “a dream that’s been a long time coming” says the storied Italian brand.
“In 2015, we decided to start making 3T frames. First up was the Exploro in 2016, followed by the Strada in 2017. But we made another decision in 2015, one that remained hidden much longer. We decided that ultimately, we wanted to produce frames in Italy,” 3T adds.
According to 3T, there were many reasons for this transition, ranging from the romantic ( having bikes produced in the homeland), to technical (full process control) and from organizational (shorter lead-times, more flexibility) to commercial (protection of proprietary technology).
“Making that decision is easy, making it happen is hard. As you may know, 99% of carbon frames are made in Asia, even the very high-end ones. Almost all use the same process, which involves the manual lay-up of pre-impregnated carbon/epoxy and lots of manual labor in finishing. Copying that process over to Italy would have been easy, but not very sustainable. Instead we simply asked: How would we design the production process from scratch for a carbon frame in Italy? Secondly, we also knew that you cannot immediately change everything, it’s better to move in steps. We would target several specific technologies, try them one by one and then combine them into the ultimate frame. Thirdly, starting up production is hard. The logical decision was to begin at the top of our range (what we called the LTD level for the original Exploro). If we know we can make the best and lightest possible frame in Italy, we know we can make anything. In addition, the volumes required for top-of-the-line frame would be lower. This way we could work on our processes more easily before scaling up,” explains 3T.
After a review of all the manufacturing technologies, 3T says the benefits of filament winding instead of manual layup and dry fiber and resin injection instead of pre-impregnated carbon, were the prevailing reasons for the transition.
The concept is simple. Instead of sheets of carbon cut in different shapes and applied on a core, filament winding uses a yarn is spun that is spun onto a core to create a carbon shape. By changing the speeds of the winder, you can change the angle of the yarn on the core. This means you can angle all the fibers exactly as you want – in theory.
In practice, enormous complexity is hidden behind this simple theory. For example, as 3T’s fiber is dry, it doesn’t want to stay on the core very easily. And winding doesn’t like very “sharp” angles.
So, 3T’s team put enormous effort into designing and building their own filament winding machines. The result is a process that has no limitations with regard to fiber angles. Therefore, the company can create almost any layup with a combination of special fiber placement and cutting.
To use filament winding but avoid some of the problems mentioned above, you can use what is called a resin bath. Here the fiber runs through the resin before being spun onto the core. Unfortunately this is not suitable for complex geometries.
With the use of dry fiber, 3T can create more complex parts, integrating different types of fibers and add reinforcements where needed. It also gives them a perfect match between the different preforms that compose a bike frame. There are several other advantages too:
With pre-impregnated carbon, you have to place the pre-formed frame into a cold mold. Otherwise, the resin starts to react as it hits the mold, before you’ve finished placing the whole frame. Then you need to heat up the mold, cure the resin, and then cool the mold down. After all that, you can start to produce the next frame.
This cycle of heating and cooling is time and energy intensive. That means it is also costly, both in energy consumption and because a long cycle time means you need more molds to reach a certain production volume.
When you use dry fiber, you can stick it into a hot mold and nothing happens. Then you close the mold and inject the resin, at which point the resin starts the curing process. So you can produce frame after frame without having to cool down the mold and heat it up again.
Furthermore, every grade and type of carbon fiber is available as a dry fiber yarn. After all that is the base material used to make any other style of fiber – weaves, braids, UD (both dry or prepreg). The more you let suppliers process the fibers for you (by either turning them into sheets or tubes already or by pre-impregnating them), the more restricted you are in the type of fiber available.
Having a production process that starts out with the yarn, means 3T can create the exact layup with the exact properties they want.
As a final advantage of the injection process, the out-of-mold surface finish can be much better. If you do it right that is – the surface can be a lot worse too before you have it dialed in. This means lot less finishing work after the frame comes out of the mold. For example in the case of 3T’s Torno crank, most of them do not require any finishing when they come out of the mold, the surface is already perfect.
Additionally, 3T says they scoured the world looking for “the best technologies in this field, hired the brightest minds, tried many different approaches and designed and built custom production machines. In 2018, followed this first major step, putting the 100% Made in Italy Torno crank into production.
The Torno uses the resin injection processes 3T always wanted to use for its frames, but was stuck with using more traditional pre-mold techniques. But, the experience gained from making the Torno eventually allowed them to apply the same technology to framebuidling.
To celebrate, 3T is producing the first 100 frames out of the Italian factory as a special Founders Edition. It comes complete with fork, seatpost and a few unique customizations:
3T says, the first frame will go to the company’s museum, while the other 99 will be available to customers for $5999.
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